Fish: The Forgotten Animal in the Fight for Animal Welfare

When people think about animal welfare and animal rights, usually what comes to mind are land animals in factory farms. Yet, marine life accounts for the largest portion of animals killed each year for food. In 2009, an estimated 51 billion sea animals were killed for food, compared to 8.27 billion land animals.

The 51 billion does not include the number of sea animals killed in the process of catching fish for consumption, and does not include the number of sea animals that die due to destruction of their habitats.

In this post, I will give you information on unethical practices in fishing and aqua farming. Hopefully this will serve as inspiration to buy sustainable seafood.

And of course, I’ll tell you what labels to look for when buying sustainable seafood.

Unethical wild-caught fishing practices

Common wild fishing methods include the use of explosives, nets, and baited hooks. These are the most destructive practices to sea life. Technological advances have made these processes faster and more efficient, but little has been done to make the processes sustainable and humane.

In addition, lack of government regulation has contributed to exploitation and near extinction of various species due to over fishing.

Blast Fishing

Blast fishing uses explosives like dynamite or homemade bombs to kill schools of fish at once. This fishing method is illegal in most places but some fishermen continue to do it. It is most common in Southeast Asia and Africa.

The explosion can cause permanent damage to coral reef, and pollute the environment with chemicals like kerosene and fertilizers which are often used in homemade bombs.

Driftnet Fishing

Driftnets are nets that drift near the surface of the water, trapping fish that come to contact with it. In the past they were small and biodegradable, but now they can measure up to 31 miles in length, and are made of long lasting nylon.

Drift net with bird

The problem with these nets is that they catch many non-target animals (by-catch), some endangered species. Whales, dolphins, sea turtles, seals, sea lions, and sea birds are common victims.

Another danger of driftnets is that the fisherman who use them sometime lose or abandon them, trapping animals for an indefinite amount of time.

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency has prohibited the use of driftnets in parts of California in order to recover the population of some species of sea turtles. It is also banned in the European Union, but regardless of the ban some fishermen continue to use driftnets.

Longline Fishing

Longline fishing with hooks

This fishing process involves placing thousands of baited hooks on a fishing line. The problem with this is the same as driftnet fishing. Many non-target animals go for the bait and become unintended victims.

Purse Seine Fishing

Purse seine fishing

A purse seine is a weighted net that is attached to a boat. When the boat encircles a school of fish, the rope tightens and prevents the fish from escaping.

In the 1950’s, fishermen began to seek out dolphins to guide them towards tuna. They would chase them with speedboats and herd them into a tight group, eventually catching them in the purse seine net along with the tuna fish.

The tuna industry in the Eastern Tropical Pacific is believed to be responsible for over 7 million dolphin deaths since this practice started.

Trawl Fishing

There are 2 types of trawl fishing, and both result in high numbers of by-catch. One is called bottom trawling, and is the most destructive of both choices.

Bottom trawl fishing

This method involves a funnel shaped net equipped with a mechanism that disturbs the seabed. The net is attached to a fishing vessel which drags the net over the sea floor to sweep everything in its path.

Bottom trawling has been compared to the cutting of rain forests, in the way that it completely devastates entire coral communities and sea mounts. It is also devastating to sea animals that live on the seabed, like crustaceans, sponges, some species of fish, and species that have yet to be discovered.

The 2nd type is mid-water trawling, and it is used to catch fish that travel in schools. The net is dragged higher in the water and not on the seabed. Dolphins are the most common by-catch of this method.

Unethical aquafarming practices

Fish aquaform enclosure

Aquafarming is the process of farming fish and other aquatic animals. Fish are raised in enclosures to be sold as food. The enclosures, or “farms,” can be mesh cages submerged in natural bodies of water, or other forms of caging on land.

Fish farming is considered by some to be a solution to over-fishing caused by wild-caught fishing methods. However, these farms can contribute to the problem if they’re handled irresponsibly.

One major issue is that the farms often depend on wild species that are lower in the food chain (like anchovies) in order to feed the larger species grown in the farm. It can take 5-lbs of smaller fish to produce 1-lb of a fish like salmon or sea bass. This again leads to over-fishing of the smaller fish.

Another issue is that the fish are housed in cramped and crowded enclosures with little room to move, much like farm factories on land. This leads to stress and injuries on the fish, which farmers treat with pesticides and antibiotics.

Aquafarms are notorious for inhumane slaughter practices. Most fish are not stunned before slaughter, and are fully conscious during slaughter. Some common slaughter methods are suffocating or freezing the fish, beating them on the head repeatedly, or bleeding out. In some cases, the fish are starved for days before they are sent to slaughter.

The US and most countries have no laws to ensure the humane treatment of fish. Add to this the misconception that fish do not feel pain. Multiple studies have proven that fish have a nervous system and are capable of feeling pain. But to be honest, multiple studies have proven the opposite. Regardless, all living beings, nervous system or not, should be treated with respect throughout life and in death.

What to look for when buying sustainable seafood

Luckily there are several independent certifications available, and all you have to do is look for their label when you’re shopping for seafood. These certifications are voluntary, and certified fisheries and aquafarms are audited by third parties. The certifications are not government regulated.

The certification bodies look to diminish the effects of the fishing practices I mentioned above in a number of ways:

  • Specific fishing methods are allowed only in areas where the impact will be minimal. For example, bottom trawling is not allowed in a geographical area with high coral communities.
  • Fisheries that use explosives or poison, and knowingly over-fish, are banned from getting certification.
  • Fisheries must take the proper precautions in order to minimize by-catch of endangered, vulnerable, threatened, and over-fished species. The precautions are specified in each certifications standards document.
  • For longline fishing, a circle hook must be used in place of the standard hook. The circle hook minimizes the number of by-catch.

And in the case of aquafarming:

  • When using chemicals (like antibiotics) farmers must track each instance, and proof to auditors that it was necessary.
  • Farmers must ensure that chemicals are not released to the environment or ingested by unintended species.
  • Farmers must seal the enclosures in such a way that fish can’t escape and threaten the genetics of native species.
  • Farmers must use non-lethal ways to deter predatory animals that are attracted to the enclosure and want to eat the farmed fish. Aquafarms are known to poison or shoot animals for eating the fish.

These are only a few points. I suggest that you review the standards of each company if you’re looking for more specific information. The documents are over 100 pages long.

Marine Stewardship Council

Marine Stewardship Council Logo

Marine Stewardship Council standards

MSC only certifies wild-caught fisheries, not aquafarms. MSC certified products are one of the easiest to find compared to other certifications. You can even find MSC labeled products at Aldi stores.

Aquaculture Stewardship Council

Aquaculture Stewardship Council Logo

Aquaculture Stewardship Council standards

ACS only works with aquafarms, not wild-caught fisheries. Products from ACS certified aquafarms will carry the ACS label.

Global Aquaculture Alliance

Global Aquaculture Alliance - Best Aquaculture Practices Logo

Best Aquaculture Practices Certification standards

GAA only certifies aquafarms. Products carrying the BAP label come from facilities that adhere to BAP standards. Many companies require BAP certification from their farmed seafood suppliers. A few are Walmart, Lyons Seafood, and Darden Restaurants.

Seafood Watch

Seafood Watch Logo

Monteray Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch standards

Seafood watch does not certify fisheries and aquafarms to use their label. They publish a consumer guide in which they make science based recommendations to help consumers make ocean friendly seafood choices. Seafood Watch recommendations show you which items are “best choices” or “good alternatives,” and which items to “avoid.”

Ocean Wise

Ocean Wise Logo

Ocean Wise uses the same standards set by Seafood Watch, and uses a similar recommendation program. Ocean Wise recommendations are categorized as “sustainable,” and items that are not recommend are categorized as “unsustainable.”

What about fish slaughter requirements?

All of these certifications lack one thing. I reviewed all of the standard documents and found no slaughter requirements. Now, I am not a seafood expert so I thought it would be better to ask before making assumptions. Here’s the reply from Seafood Watch:

Yes, you are correct. Humane slaughter is not one of the criteria that is considered in our assessments. As an organization, we are focused more on the environmental impacts. Although the word “sustainability” is starting to change and we are starting to produce a human rights risk assessment tool. I don’t believe we have anything in the works when it comes into method of slaughter.

And the reply from MSC:

While some fishing companies (e.g. Ekofish Group from Denmark), due to increasing environmental awareness and animal welfare concerns, are working to develop more humane slaughtering techniques to be used on board their fishing vessels, there are no MSC certification requirements regarding this.

Still, if you’re a meat eater or a pescatarian, you should consider buying seafood certified by one of these companies. They do not have welfare standards in place, but the effort to save and preserve marine life is commendable.

Do you make any efforts to buy sustainable seafood? What labels do you look for? Please comment!

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